Heralded as one of the world’s finest minds, Professor Stephen Hawking passed away peacefully this morning at his home in Cambridge. Despite being diagnosed with a rare form of motor neurone disease in his early twenties and given only a few years to live, the British scientist survived for more than half a century, and his insights and intellect not only shaped modern cosmology, but inspired audiences around the world. His best-selling book ‘A Brief History of Time’ has sold 10 million copies, and has been translated into 40 different languages.
Professor Hawking’s radical discoveries, which centered around his keen interest in relativity and the subject of black holes, brought him critical acclaim, and his groundbreaking work brought together several different fields of physical theory: gravitation, cosmology, quantum theory, thermodynamics and information theory.
While a Nobel Prize eluded him, his list of achievements were many, including election to the Royal Society, the world's oldest independent scientific academy, at just 32 years of age, and becoming the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, arguably Britain’s most distinguished chair, a post formerly held by Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage and Paul Dirac - one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics. He also won the Albert Einstein Award, established to recognize high achievement in the natural sciences, the Wolf Prize, an international award granted in Israel presented to living scientists and artists, the Copley Medal, the Royal Society’s oldest and most prestigious award, and the Fundamental Physics Prize.
But despite his obvious intellectual brilliance, Professor Hawking was far more than just a scientist. His personality and wit captured global audiences and he used his fame to not only bring physics to the wider world, but to raise awareness of broader issues, including the threat of nuclear war, genetically modified viruses and the potential pitfalls of artificial intelligence. “He was a person who wasn’t afraid to think about the big questions,” said Max Tegmark, a physics professor at MIT.
In memory, here are just some of Professor Stephen Hawking's most thought-provoking and humorous pronouncements…
“We are in danger of destroying ourselves by our greed and stupidity. We cannot remain looking inwards at ourselves on a small and increasingly polluted and overcrowded planet.”
“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”
“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”
“The universe doesn’t allow perfection.”
“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”
"I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road."
"We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the universe. That makes us something very special."
"My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why is is as it is and why it exists at all."
"Life would be tragic if it weren't funny."
"We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet."
This last quote is in regards to his warning that the efforts to develop artificial intelligence and create thinking machines could spell the end of the human race. We'd be wise to take heed.